Goodbye, Melanie! Mehdi Hasan on the Spectator's departing blogger

Phillips leaves the Spectator as the complaints pile up.

Poor ol' Melanie Phillips. In today's Guardian, the Conservative Party chair Sayeeda Warsi goes on the offensive:

"I don't read her, actually. I call her Mad Mel," Lady Warsi says of Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, who has denounced her as "stupid".

Last week, Phillips announced her departure from the Spectator, where she has been blogging for the past few years.

On 16 June, under the headline, '"My blog's new home", she wrote:

This is my last blog post for the Spectator. I have decided to expand and develop my own website over the coming months and so if you would like to continue to read my blog you can find it at Melaniephillips.com.

But was this a voluntary or enforced departure? The blogger Guido Staines beat me to it but I can't help but notice how the Spectator has had to apologise to Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, on its website this week, after a blog post by Phillips made "false" allegations about Crooke's past. Phillips's decision to move on might just be a coincidence but a well-connected source tells me that the payout to Crooke cost the Spectator "tens of thousands of pounds" and left Fraser Nelson and Andrew Neil "furious" with her.

Here's the full text of the apology on the front page of the Spectator website:

An apology to Alastair Crooke

A blog by Melanie Phillips posted on 28 January 2011 reported an allegation that Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, had been expelled from Israel and dismissed for misconduct from Government service or the EU after threatening a journalist whose email he had unlawfully intercepted. We accept that this allegation is completely false and we apologise to Mr Crooke.

Crooke is a former member of MI6 who has long been the subject of vitriolic attacks from the UK's neocon brigade for having the temerity to suggest that a) we should consider talking to, and negotiating with, Islamists, and (b) all Islamists aren't the same.

He wasn't, however, the first person to be smeared by Phillips. Remember this apology to Mohammed Sawalha, of the British Muslim Initiative (BMI) group, on the Spectator website in November 2010?

Mohammad Sawalha: Apology

On 2 July 2008 we published an article entitled "Just look what came crawling out" which alleged that at a protest at the celebration in London of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, Mohammad Sawalha had referred to Jews in Britian as "evil/noxious". We now accept that Mr Sawalha made no such anti-Semitic statement and that the article was based on a mistranslation elsewhere of an earlier report. We and Melanie Phillips apologise for the error.

To lose one legal case to the "Islamist lobby" may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness -- especially since Phillips's husband, according to his own website, "is Britain's best-known commentator on the law". Perhaps, in future, she should run her blog posts past him before she hits "publish".

But "Mad Mel" shouldn't feel that bad. She isn't alone on this. Blinded by their monomaniacal obsession with Islamists under every British bed, members of the UK media's neoconservative faction have been the subject of other (successful) legal complaints and libel actions in recent years.

Stephen Pollard -- the current editor of the Jewish Chronicle who has, in the past, tried to portray me as an anti-western extremist on Twitter -- had to apologise to the London-based Muslim organisation, IslamExpo, after he described it as a racist group that promotes genocide in a Spectator blogpost in 2008.

From the Spectator website, August 2010:

Islam Expo: Apology

Stephen Pollard and the Spectator apologise for the unintended and false suggestion in a blog published on 15 July 2008 that Islam Expo Limited is a fascist party dedicated to genocide which organised a conference with a racist and genocidal programme. We accept that Islam Expo's purpose is to provide a neutral and broad-based platform for debate on issues relating to Muslims and Islam.

Pollard and Phillips have now both moved on from the Spectator, leaving its editor, Fraser Nelson, free to spend his cash on his editorial budget rather than on the magazine's legal budget. I'm sure he'll be delighted.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.